Recording under the ASC moniker, San Diego-based producer James Clements has released numerous collections of ambient techno inspired by the deepest and darkest reaches of space, including 2018’s Trans— Neptunian Objects 2 and The Outer Limits and 2016’s Return of the Emissary and The Farthest Reaches.
But for his latest album (now available from British Columbia’s Silent Season label), Clements has drawn inspiration from a different sort of depths — one that may be more terrestrial and less cosmic, but no less fascinating and compelling.
To listen to ASC’s The Waves is to slip beneath the surface of the familiar and enter a shadowy, mysterious world of oceanic currents and drifts. A world that’s as beguiling and entrancing as it is dark and unknown. (After all, more than 80% of the Earth’s oceans remain unexplored and unmapped. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do our own planet’s ocean floors.)
While ASC’s previous releases could be reminiscent of the Echospace approach to ambient music — i.e., vast wells of sound, skeletal deep beats that seem to echo off into infinity, a pervading sense of otherworldly melancholy — The Waves feels far less indebted to it. Or rather, its influence feels so slight as to be subconscious. Instead, Clements charts his own path — or to use a more watery metaphor — plumbs his own depths.
The result is not just some of the best music of Clements’ career to date, but some of the best ambient techno I’ve heard in ages. With these eight songs, Clements has created evocative soundscapes that beg to be listened to late at night, preferably on headphones and turned up loud to make the experience appropriately immersive.
“Echo Location” creates the sense of descending into some unexplored ocean trench. As the song progresses, Clements appropriately increases the pressure and intensity of his reverberating sounds until they threaten to crush you. At the same time, shimmering guitar cascades shine out amid the murky depths, all the more beautiful for the darkness surrounding them, beckoning you to go even deeper while hinting at a safe path through.
The ghostly melodies and forlorn drones of “Kelp Forest” don’t just imagine the labyrinthine recesses of the titular ocean structure; they also evoke a sense of mystery and loss, as if they’re the spectral transmissions of ships lost at sea long ago.
Finally, “Ocean Shadow” closes out the album on an enigmatic and ominous note, as Clements’ waves (npi) of glitch-tinged ambience roll ever onward and outward. Just as most of the Earth’s oceans remain unknown, so too is one left with the impression that there’s so much more left to explore and experience in The Waves — but only if you’re willing to descend even deeper next time.